Ever wonder why bakeries make such wonderful bread but your homemade loaves do not quite measure up? Bakeries simply have better tools to hand. Their ovens are hotter and have steam injection, they have pre-measured bread mixes, and they have the time to devote to just making bread. They can check their flour for protein content and add enzymes and dough conditioners to help their product shine.
Even artisan bakeries eschewing mixes and conditioners have consistent baking conditions and special, dedicated tools as well as trained bakers who do nothing but bake.
But in the last decade or so, many advances in home baking have been made. Some clever people have created ways for baking homemade bread in less time, better flours and yeasts have become available to the home baker, and sourdoughs and the use of time to bake a great loaf has once again come into vogue.
Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your bag of flour:
Things to Think About
Start with a simple recipe. Many different kinds of bread use only four ingredients; flour, water, salt and yeast.
Follow the directions carefully but use your common sense and experience. I hate to say it but many old recipes should be thrown out. So much progress has been made in bread creation as well as recipe writing that you will get good results more quickly by updating your recipe files and cookbook collection. The caveat is that bread baking will always have slight variations due to the moisture content of the flour you are using.
Keep records. Teach yourself to check ambient temperature, water and dough temperatures and write down the steps you took, on the side of your recipe or in a notebook. You will probably bake bread a few times a month and you will forget what works for you - that you added two extra tablespoons of water, or cut down on the salt - if it's not written down.
Tips for Making Bread Dough
Take your time. Many recipes call for smaller amounts of yeast than you may be used to. Yeast is alive and grows by dividing. Using less yeast means a longer time before you see the dough rise which allows time for more flavors to develop. Retarding (slowing down) fermentation by using cold liquids or refrigerating the dough helps with flavor development as well.
Also, whole wheat doughs work better when the flours have time to rehydrate. This awakens enzymes that work on complex sugars in the flour as well as softens the bran in whole grains. Bran flakes work like little razors, cutting the gluten (protein) strands and preventing the dough from stretching like dough made with white flour. When starches are divided into glucose molecules, the yeast has more food to eat.
Weigh, do not measure. When you can, use a scale to weigh the same amount of flour, salt etc. every time. Bakeries rely on baker's percentages which make their bread consistent from day to day and so can you. Convert recipes without weights by weighing as you go. Try not to add too much flour, the leading cause of dry, tough loaves.
Use sourdough starter in conjunction with yeast. Unless you are a purist (and bless you for being one), most breads are great with a little sourdough in them but not as the main leavener. Sourdoughs from Germany can be quite sour, very unlike our supermarket sourdough. In many European bakeries almost all the breads are sourdoughs. Adding baker's yeast will help the dough rise before it becomes too sour.
Sourdough is good for keeping bread fresh and Germans say it is good for the digestion as well. Sourdough is essential for rye breads, where the acid keeps the starch molecules from breaking down, thereby allowing a gluten-like structure to form and keeps the finished product from being gluey. You can mimic sourdough with acidic ingredients or additives, as well.
To improve your crumb (grain of the loaf) you may try using a stand mixer and keeping the dough tacky. I have better results when I use my KitchenAide machine to knead the dough. I am more likely to knead it for the specified period in the recipe and my hands are free for other tasks. You can also use less flour than when kneading by hand. This wetter dough seems to give the bread a better chance of rising.
There are also minimal kneading methods which fold a wet dough like a letter. Here is a discussion and video about folding dough.
If you want an open crumb, do not over knead. If you knead the dough after the first rise, you will end up with an American-style, closed-crumb bread or German "Toastbrot". This may be good for sandwiches, but is not what many people look for in artisan breads like foccacia or Bauernbrot. Shape, but do not knead the bread after the first rise. If a recipe says "to punch down" deflate gently and knead a few times to redistribute the gases.
Do not omit the salt. Salt has many chemical interactions with flour and yeast. European breads tend to have quite a bit of salt, often between two and three percent (Baker's percent). This gives the bread flavor, but gives the EU cause for concern. For health reasons, they would like to limit salt to under two percent. The baker's guilds in Europe have been fighting against the EU changing their traditional recipes and keeping salt content off the labels of fresh bakery bread. See this blog entry and this one for an expanded discussion.
You may try and decrease the salt in any given recipe, but make sure you have noted it in the book so you can compare results in taste and texture.
Develop your own bread specialty. Practice makes perfect. Use a recipe that you like over and over. Make it your own. Your family and friends will start to request it, look forward to it. Because you practice it often, you will get very good and very streamlined in making it.